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With the UAAP Women’s volleyball tournament right around the corner, our resident Volleyball junkie predicts this season to be as nail bitingly exciting as the last one, complete with all new heroines and downers, social media controversies, and plot twists that have made following UAAP Women’s volleyball so addicting. But he ultimately believes we’re still going to witness another epic La Salle vs Ateneo finals.
Ateneo’s championship run last season was solid proof that though recruitment might be the determining factor in any program’s chances at success, there’s a lot more that goes into winning a title. Flashback to the start of last season, Ateneo lost all but three of its main rotation players and was under the mentorship of a new coach who could barely speak English. They basically had to fill the holes in their rotation with rookies and unproven commodities they had stashed on the bench, eventually having to deal with the loss of prized rookie, Ana Gopico due to an ACL tear.
Meanwhile, DLSU tore through everyone it crossed, going 14-0. The Lady Spikers looked invincible in the elimination round, forging one of the most balanced attacks in league history. Their perfect record entailed a thrice-to-beat advantage and an express ticket to the Finals.
So while DLSU spent those more than two weeks before the Finals practicing in its quiet facility, Ateneo fought through three straight do-or-die games, like Bride in those Kill Bill films going after her past assassins, then finally getting to Bill near the end of the film. Alyssa Valdez and her BFFs took down an Adamson team with Bang Pineda (which culminated in an iconic hug between Valdez and Pineda after the game. It was kind of like Valdez had just put the finishing stab to her prey and she wanted to close its still open eyes), then handily took care of a twice-to-beat NU side that featured the Santiago Towers.
By the time the Finals came, Ateneo had built enough steam behind their Heart strong machination that they quite simply outclassed La Salle. Though most people in the organization will never admit it, the time away from a ruckus UAAP setting really affected La Salle while Ateneo was born in it, already molded by it, and didn’t feel comfortable until they won the title. I will never concede that Ateneo had a better team on paper than DLSU last season, but I will say that Ateneo had all the breaks falling its way, and was deadly decisive in taking advantage of each and everyone of them.
Though other teams have tried their mightiest, I don’t see any of them having enough talent to take the spotlight from either of these teams. Now, let’s go over what the key questions will be for both teams to address this season.
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How much should Ateneo change its rotation to accommodate its newly recruited blue-chippers?
I admittedly have never seen or been to an Ateneo recruiting visit, but I guess they must go something like this:
I mean, they basically cleaned the market on high-ceiling middle blockers this season with Bea De Leon, Maddie Madayag, and Therese Gaston. The addition of these girls suddenly makes Ateneo the tallest team in the league, but Ateneo found a great combo in veterans in Aerieal Patnongon and Amy Ahomiro taking turns patrolling the net, especially the lefty Kiwi who dominated her matchup against Mika Reyes in the Finals. Coach Thai definitely has a multitude of options for his lineup this season, but that would mean displacing several parts that won them the title last season. Ahomiro played opposite before she made the transition to middle blocker last season and could take over that spot, but that would mean displacing either Mich Morente or Ella De Jesus out of the main rotation. Maybe Coach Thai has already groomed one of the three rookies to play another position on the floor. Needless to say, having too many options is better than not having them at all.
How good is Alyssa Valdez?
Rhetorical question. Should that question even be asked? I guess I just needed a good enough entry point to talk about Baldo.
If you were to ask me to pick any local college athlete right now to start a school sports program with, I’m picking Valdez. She might already be the most devastating offensive weapon in the country, and she’s still in college. For a certain stretch in their most recent stint in the Shakey’s V-League, Valdez averaged 27.7 points a game in the second round. She carried Ateneo to wins over semi-pro teams like Cagayan Valley, who basically had a team of past UAAP All-Stars (UST’s Aiza Maizo and Rhea Dimaculangan, FEU’s Rose Marie Vargas and Wyneth Eulalio, and AdU’s Pau Soriano and Bang Pineda). Valdez has come a long way in her reception ability and has blossomed into the exact type of leader her teammates need to lead them through sticky situations.
So, is there really anything we need to question about Baldo? Well, I guess she must be really tired. From participating in the V-League, to the UAAP Beach Volleyball tournament, which she sat out due to coughs (you should’ve seen the crowds she drew to Caloocan- though she didn’t play, it must’ve been exhausting having to deal with all the people hounding her), to the multiple other appearances outside of volleyball, to her studies, man, does she have a lot to do. Valdez, in years before, has had several cases of cramps, especially on games that go deep into the fourth or fifth set. Can Ateneo afford to manage her minutes to keep her fresh for the entire season? Well, I can guarantee one thing, Ateneo will hand out more straight set whoppings this season which should bode well for Baldo’s stamina.
How much of a factor is Ateneo’s crowd?
A friend from Adamson’s drum line, AUDYO, answered quite eloquently after a game between Adamson and Ateneo last season in the San Juan Arena:
“Parang Adamson versus San Juan Arena lang noh?”
He’s right. After asking several players about this also, they’ve all told me that it’s impossible to ignore such a ruckus crowd and just focus on the task at hand. Make no doubt about it, the Ateneo crowds are some of the wildest and most blindly supportive fans in local sports. Just check out the hordes of people waiting outside the venue after games just to snap pics with the players.
This is a distinct advantage for Ateneo as this is routine for them already. It visibly doesn’t faze them as much as it does to the other team especially when the crowd goes extra wild during clutch moments of the game.
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How much does the loss of Captain Aby affect DLSU?
Really, there is no bigger question for DLSU this season. We’re talking about a former MVP, Best Blocker, the team’s captain for the past two seasons, and a DLSU legend. You might be saying, “But she’s just one player, surely La Salle won’t miss her that much?”
You might be correct if you base it on the numbers she put up last season, as those pale in comparison to the key players other teams lost this season. But watch any La Salle game for the past two seasons and you’ll understand why. Watch Aby closely as she wilds out after a terrific play her teammate makes or after a solid block that sends the ball back to her opponents face. Google Aby Maraño, and look at her iconic game pictures; the one where she’s running around the court pointing to the crowd after a spike, or the one where she almost crashed to the side railings of the MoA Arena just to keep the ball alive, or just the ones where she’s egging her teammates on while emphatically clapping her hands.
Notice how in each game, Maraño drew most of the camera shots with her celebrations. That’s what Aby was- a magnet. She drew so much attention towards herself that her teammates were more free to do things around the court. We barely noticed when someone else was underperforming because we were too busy looking at Aby celebrating and motivating her teammates like a mad woman. She took so much criticism herself and away from her teammates, that we barely noticed that someone else was struggling.
This is where Aby and Aly are the best at. They’re so good at being themselves, that they took away so much unwanted attention from their teammates, that their teams are just smoother as a whole. But for the record, I’d still pick Aby over Aly, just because I think I’d enjoy being best friends with Aby Maraño, the volleyball captain more. Imagine you just saw your grades and you failed during the prelims and your best friend, Aby Maraño, volleyball captain approaches you in the hallway and lets out her patented “BAWI TAYO! BAWI!” scream then clap in your face. Then you ace your midterms, and Aby Maraño, volleyball captain, lets out her loud signature “Woooooooo!”, gives you double high fives and hugs you. Forget being best friends, I’d want her to be the team captain of my life. I think the world would be less depressed if everyone had their own personal Aby captaining their lives.
How will they react to being the underdogs this season?
The Lady Spikers will find themselves in unfamiliar territory this season as they are no longer the lengthiest and most feared team this season, though they do still have a lot of their veterans returning. DLSU used to have this veil of dominance around them that they just kept winning close games just on sheer confidence, but this season teams might not be as tentative against La Salle.
But losing last season might just be a blessing in disguise for DLSU as they no longer have the pressure of being perfect throughout the season, as well as the additional weight of winning consecutive titles on their shoulders. We might see a much looser Ara Galang and Kim Fajardo, which could be deadly for opponents. Mika Reyes has always been a shining example of confidence on the court up until the Finals last year where she had moments of unusual vulnerability. But Mika should be back to her trash talking ways this season as well as the always cool Cyd Demecillo and Wensh Tiu. People might be back to tagging them as favorites when they dominate their first few opponents.
So Migs, who’s winning it all this season?
I would say teams in the middle of the pack will most likely be duking it out tightly for the bottom two seeds in the Final Four because Ateneo and DLSU are just too good. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of these teams would sweep the elimination rounds or they can even both go 13-1 with their solitary loss against each other.
It’s going to basically come down to who transitions into their new identities this season. Ateneo still has the major chunk of its championship team coming back while DLSU has a hungry team of vets out for revenge, but is looking to a new on court leader. DLSU might still have a few tricks up its sleeve as to who it’ll field in Aby’s spot as Coach Ramil has always been really good in plugging the gaps left by his players who’ve graduated.
It might be too early to tell, but if you point a gun to my head right now and made me choose the champs this season, I’d first have to ask you why you’re threatening my life for such a trivial thing. Then I’d choose Ateneo winning over DLSU, 2-1. But hey, There’s a reason for why we play the games.
UAAP SEASON 77 WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL PRIMERS